Learning Theories: Understanding 4 Major Ones for the Classroom

Author: Leader in Me
December 6, 2018

learning theories

Learning theories and Learning-theory research provide important insights into what makes students effective and efficient learners. While expanding our knowledge of broad theories as a central focus continues to diminish, present-day researchers typically embrace one or more of four foundational learning-theory domains.

In Ms. Smith’s first-grade classroom, she is working with one of her students, Sam, to help him with some challenging attention-span issues. She gives him a sticker whenever she sees him on task. Down the hall, Mr. Everett works with his third-grade classroom to understand what level of skill and interest each student brings to the reading process in order to help them choose books that are “just right” and engaging for each of them. Ms. Williams, a kindergarten teacher, is working with the school’s counselor to determine each student’s cognitive level. She has noticed that some of her students are not able to grasp abstract ideas. In Ms. Johnson’s fifth-grade classroom, much of her work with students includes helping them realize their academic and social/emotional potential. She believes that this will prove to be very beneficial to them in school and in their lives out of school.

Each of these brief scenarios reflects the application of a specific learning-theory domain. Some teachers intentionally employ learning theory in their classrooms, and many engage in strategies and processes that are based on a particular learning theory, even though the theory itself does not drive the decision-making process.

Learning Theories

As illustrated in the scenarios above, educators are driven by the persistent desire to better understand what makes students effective and efficient learners. Learning-theory research provides important insights into this process. Over the last fifty years, the research focus has moved from generalizable, broad theories to more specific, detailed approaches that include the learner and the context of learning as central features. While expanding our knowledge of broad theories as a central focus continues to diminish, present-day researchers typically embrace one or more of four foundational learning-theory domains: behaviorist theories, cognitive theories, constructivist theories, and motivation/humanist theories. While other theories exist, these serve as foundations of current learning research.

Behaviorist Theories

A behaviorist perspective includes an assumption that student learning behaviors may be shaped by specific actions (stimuli) that lead to specific responses. From a behaviorist perspective, reinforcement plays a vital role. Both positive reinforcement (employing a stimulus to the environment) and negative reinforcement (withholding a stimulus from the environment) increase the likelihood of the learning behavior occurring on a consistent basis. Understanding and implementing an effective process of reinforcement decisions determine the level of change in the learner—that is, the degree to which new learning is taking place. Much behaviorist research has been completed using animals, with the results then applied to human learning.

Cognitive Theories

Originally conceived as an alternative theory to the behaviorist approach, cognitive theories seek to explain how the mind works during the learning process. While changes in behavior occur, the cognitivist attributes these changes to specific mental processes that may be measured and enhanced. Like a computer, the mind takes in information, processes that information, then uses that information to produce learning outcomes. Central to the cognitive approach is the understanding that individuals must participate actively in the learning process rather than just responding to stimuli. Stages of cognitive development determine the learner’s ability to understand abstract, complex concepts.

Constructivist Theories

Central to the constructivist approach is the learner as a constructor of knowledge. New learning is shaped by past experiences and constructs/schema the learner brings to the learning process. Cultural tools such as speech and writing are first used in a social context and may lead to higher-level thinking and learning. The context or setting of the learning environment may determine the effectiveness of a learner’s ability to construct new knowledge. Encouraging the application of knowledge to new situations enhances the learner’s ability to transfer knowledge and increases skill development that may be universally applied.

Motivation/Humanist Theories

Humanist theories find their focus in the whole person of the learner—that is, cognitive and affective needs of the learner must be addressed. The growth of the individual over a lifetime must be considered, and the individuality of each learner is central to the effectiveness of that growth. Recognizing that human potential is expansive and that the learner brings values and personal perspective to the learning environment is key. The learning environment at its best is student-centered and should be personalized to the needs of each individual student.

These foundational learning-theory domains provide insight and perspective to our understanding of the roles of the educator and the student in a school setting. Some follow-up questions, however, seem appropriate: In what ways do these theories impact learning in a digital age? How do these theories inform classroom and instructional design? In a school setting, what are the implications of each theory domain for student life-readiness preparation?

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